Saturday, February 27, 2010

#49: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

So we've reached the end, and what an end. Once he headed up at Disney, John Lasseter insisted the company return to traditional animation, and traditional story telling, so here we have "The Princess and the Frog," an fairy tale musical akin to the Disney Renaissance format, but also hearkening back to the look and formulas of the classic films. It's also the first Disney film to use an African-American cast, but I won't even try to get into discussing the seemingly never-ending "controversy" there. Our story is of a young woman Tiana, who has been working day in and day out down in 1920s New Orleans, saving up money to buy her own restaurant to fulfill her childhood dream. Meanwhile, Prince Naveen of Maldonia has come into town, and is bamboozled by a charismatic witch doctor Dr. Facilier, who turns him into a frog. Taking a page (literally) from a classic story, Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him to make him human again, but unfortunately it just turns Tiana into a frog too. The two end up getting lost in the bayou and find out about someone who can help: an old voo-doo queen Mama Odie. They venture to seek her out, along with an enthusiastic trumpet-playing gator Louis and a Cajun firefly Ray.
It's very clear those at the Disney studios went all out on this one, giving all they could to make this one shine and prove traditional animation's worth. Let me tell you, they went above and beyond: this film is fucking gorgeous. I do enjoy the design and care that goes into making CG animated films, but really, nothing can hold a candle to good old 2D; the artistry is so much stronger, and there's always the knowledge in the back of my head that these are all drawn pictures that are amazingly moving that makes it like magic (which for Disney, makes sense). Everything in this whole damn movie is eye candy: the city of New Orleans, the Le Bouff estate, Facilier's shop, the lush bayou, everything is done with such care and attention to detail. Disney's traditional animation department was cut off too soon, I think: they had dealt with ways to use computer animation to best assist them with their last few films, but it was all experimental and things looked a bit shifty. But here, they've only better improved the traditional look using very subtle computer enhancements, the few there are to begin with.
The character animation is also very strong. Our characters are traditionally designed, yet still feel fresh-faced. Some of the animation here is truly unbelievable, when I first saw it there were several times I was just absolutely floored, particularly with Dr. Facilier, Charlotte and Louis. Some of their scenes have movements so fluid and full of expression, I am utterly convinced they were animated by phantoms, because no human could accomplish such wizardry. That being said, a lot of the characters are truly a joy to WATCH, which is something that's been lost by Disney for a while. I could turn off the sound through a lot of this film and still be very amused. The script also shouldn't be ignored: very focused and on-point, free of most superfluous dialogue, and above all is quite funny and charming. The humor comes organically from the story and the characters, and bits also intertwine the humorous with the heartwarming, like Ray's amorous affections toward a shining star, his Evangeline.
So our story is pretty solid: surprising for Disney that Tiana is actually very firmly established in the very beginning as a girl who knows what she wants and is working hard to get it. Conversely, Prince Naveen is a rich layabout, who enters the film as a guy who's very aloof, but light-hearted and fun. However, we only see him for a brief period before he's turned into a frog, and when that happens, he seems a tad different. His cocky Lothario side is played up a bit more, which doesn't seem to match what we've seen of him previously. Maybe if he'd had one more scene for better establish his character, it would have meshed better. Suffice to say though, frog Naveen's animation is spectacular, the most cartoony Disney character we've seen in a while, almost alluding to a Chuck Jones-esque design. Frog Tiana, however, looks a tad strange to me... I dunno, the design isn't quite as strong as Naveen's.
I also do want to sing the praises of our villain Dr. Facilier, what a fantastic and engrossing character. So manipulative and debonair, he's got to be one of my favorite Disney villains, and I love how they didn't sugarcoat his quite creepy shadow creatures, as well as his absolutely awesome final demise. Despite all this, I wish his motives were made a bit clearer: he sweet-talks Naveen's ever-suffering assistant to go along with his scheme to physically impersonate Naveen to marry the rich Charlotte Le Boeff. Then, Facilier will use his voo doo magic to kill her father, then horn in on his riches and take over New Orlenas, and offer the citizens' souls to his friends on the other side. Phew. I will admit it made more sense to me the second time around, but something about his whole scheme felt kinda odd, almost distant from our heroes' plight. Tiana eventually does Facilier in, but they never really had any animosity. But the scene where Facilier tempts her to help him in exchange for making her dreams come true is so friggin' awesome that I could care less.

Verdict? I am so very sad. This film didn't exactly break the box office, it did alright, meanwhile that horrid Chipmunks sequel scored two hundred mill... it's unbelievable. But "Little Mermaid" wasn't exactly a great success initially, and look where that led. "Frog" is nothing short of a triumph, a true indicator at what Disney can do in terms of dazzling visuals, a well-plotted script, and phenomenal character animation. While I hope they try more dynamic stories than fall back on fairy tales in the future, the folks at Disney have demonstrated in the best possible way that traditional animation is far from dead.

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